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Stretch Your Way to Stress Reduction and Better Relaxation

January 14, 2002|KAREN VOIGHT

Stress reduction and relaxation probably sound good to you these days. If so, stretching can be the road to help you get there.

If you follow a consistent stretch program, not only will your body feel calmer, but your movements will become smoother, more coordinated and more graceful. With regular stretching, you'll know what your physical limitations are. You'll quickly learn how far you can extend or bend your body in a variety of angles. This translates to added control, precision and power in any activity you do.

Ideally you should create a state of relaxation whenever you stretch. Relaxation is a motor skill. It's the ability to keep certain muscles still and unaffected by movements that the rest of your body is doing. For example, when you are using your arms to pull your leg into a stretch, it is as important for you to keep your leg muscles relaxed as it is for you to engage your arm muscles. There should be no tension or extra movement created by your leg. If your leg is relaxed, your leg muscles will respond better to the stretch.

It's best to stretch immediately after lifting weights or after an aerobic workout, but short "stretch breaks" at work or throughout your day can also be beneficial. In any case, you need to follow a few basics to get the most from your time and to keep your stretching safe.

First, make sure that your muscles are always warm. Think of them as taffy. Cold taffy will resist and snap when pulled, but warm taffy is much more pliable and prone to lengthening. This might mean taking a warm shower, turning up the heat in your room or going for a brisk walk around the block to get your body warmed up.

Next, you'll need to let go of any stress you are feeling and learn to concentrate on yourself. When you are doing a stretch, focus on the sensations happening inside your body. Stop thinking about anything else that's going on around you. Once you are at the furthest point of your stretch, stay quiet and still. Focus on breathing in and out slowly. Hold each of your stretches 30 seconds or longer. This is called static stretching and gives your muscles enough time to release tension and become longer.

Practice these two static leg stretches to relieve tightness in your calves and the backs of your thighs.

1. Hamstring Stretch

Lie down face up on a mat or cushioned surface with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Bend your right knee to your chest and place a folded towel or stretch band around the ball of your foot. Keep your head, shoulders and hips on the floor as you gently extend your right leg. Move your leg forward or backward until you find the point where you can fully straighten your knee.

With your arms' strength, slowly pull your toes down, allowing your heel to point upward. You should feel the back of your leg lengthening as you hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds. Breathe comfortably, and repeat on the other leg.

2. Calf Stretch

Begin by sitting on your heels with your knees resting on the floor. To stretch your right calf muscles, bring your right knee in front of your chest and place your right foot flat on the floor. Your heel should be moved as far back to your hip as possible. Place your fingertips on the ground for balance.

Slowly lean your torso forward, pressing your knee forward over your toes. Make sure that most of your weight remains over your right heel. Don't roll on your toes or let your heel come off the floor. Breathe comfortably as you stretch for 30 to 60 seconds, and repeat on the other leg.

Remember that relaxation is the opposite of tension. To achieve a relaxed state, you must learn to concentrate on what is happening inside your body as you stretch slowly and gently. Then, at the point of maximum stretch, make sure you exhale deeply. Done consistently, this method of stretching can help you achieve a deep and satisfying sense or relaxation.

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Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column.

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Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest videos are "Pure and Simple Stretch' and "Yoga Sculpt." She can be reached at kvoightla@aol. com. Her column usually appears the first Monday of the month.

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